Growing technology turning manure into kilowatts

Aug 10, 2012

With the presidential election just around the corner, the mudslinging is heating up, and at the top of the Republicans’ list is the assessment of the current administration’s energy policies.

For example, in 2009, Obama’s Energy Department awarded $535 million to solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which went bankrupt last year. But despite President Barack Obama’s support for several failed solar companies, his administration continues to support new creative energy initiatives—including making energy out of manure.

USDA had been busy spreading the word on the “anaerobic digester,” including one the agency funded last year that produces its own electricity. Anaerobic digesters work by letting manure and bacteria ferment, which gives off methane that can be burned to produce electricity.

“Using enhanced manure management techniques not only provides a new source of income for farmers, it also improves air and water quality while providing renewable electricity for hundreds of homes in the community,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “It’s a win-win-win.”

Vilsack’s comments came in following a tour of a dairy farm in Berlin, PA, that uses the anaerobic digester. The 570 cows at the farm can generate enough manure to produce 920,000 kWh of electricity in one year, and even have some left over to sell.

The funding for the digester came from USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program and totaled $528,000 in loans.

Just last week, Vilsack announced another $105 million loan guarantee to Fulcrum Sierra BioFuels, LLC to finance development of a facility to convert municipal solid waste into advanced biofuels. According to USDA’s release, the project will help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, relieve pressure on existing and future landfills, and stimulate economic growth in Northern Nevada through job creation.

“The time is now to embrace alternative Americanproduced feedstocks that support our nation’s energy independence, provide jobs in rural areas, and support the Obama Administration’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy,” Vilsack said in the release.

The Nevada plant is expected to create an estimated 430 jobs during construction and 53 permanent jobs in Storey County, 20 miles east of Reno. Once operational, the plant is expected to convert 147,000 tons of processed municipal solid waste into over 10 million gallons of advanced biofuels annually using a two-part thermo-chemical process.

USDA has funded a total of seven biorefineries that are using feedstocks like agriculture residue, woody biomass, municipal solid waste, and algae in states from Florida and Michigan to New Mexico. USDA is also investing in research by coordinating with five regional research centers to work on the science necessary to ensure profitable biofuels can be produced from a diverse range of feedstocks. To encourage the production of advanced biofuels from non-food, nonfeed sources, USDA has incentivized farmers to grow advanced feedstocks on nearly 60,000 acres.

While the plants are gaining traction on the building end, the proverbial “shit” is hitting the fan in some areas.

In Norco, CA, known as “Horsetown USA,” plans are underway to move the city’s 65 tons of daily manure to nearby Eastvale, where an energy plant is in the planning stages. The plant would use a thermal process to incinerate the manure, according to a study prepared for the Norco City Council.

Eastvale Councilman Ike Bootsma said he had many concerns about the proposal. “It’s like they’re bringing Norco’s problems into Eastvale,” Bootsma said. “They need to keep their manure in their own area.”

While concerns may be premature, the bottom line is, manure is a problem. Currently, the city trucks its manure to leased drying fields in Chino.

Plant discussions in other areas of California are also underway. In Tulare, CA, the local Planning Commission recently held a public hearing regarding construction of a “manure to energy” plant. Colony Energy has applied to build an anaerobic co-digester on about 14 acres of land southwest of Tulare’s wastewater treatment plant.

The co-digester would use cow manure, food processing waste and food waste to produce electrical and heat energy from bio-gas-fueled engine-generators. Ohio State University will hold a first-of-its-kind training course on anaerobic digestion. The course takes place Sept. 6-7 at the university’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster.

“The (anaerobic digestion) industry is growing in Ohio, but there are no educational programs that provide an understanding of the scientific principles underlying the AD process or the daily management of an AD system,” said Yebo Li, the organizer of the course and an OARDC biosystems engineer.

Li said the course is designed for people who already work in the anaerobic digestion industry. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor